By Chuks Iloegbunam
(I read this book review at the 50th Anniversary of the Asaba Massacre.)
Book Title: The Asaba Massacre Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War.
Authors: S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser M. Ottanelli.
Publishers: Cambridge University Press.
We find this introduction in the book:
“In October 1967, early in the Nigerian Civil War, government troops entered Asaba in pursuit of the retreating Biafran army, slaughtering thousands of civilians and leaving the town in ruins. News of the atrocity was suppressed by the Nigerian government, with the complicity of Britain, and its significance in the subsequent progress of that conflict was misunderstood. Drawing on archival sources on both sides of the Atlantic and interviews with survivors of the killing, pillaging, and rape, as well as with high-ranking Nigerian military and political leaders, S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser M. Ottanelli offer an interdisciplinary reconstruction of the history of the Asaba Massacre, redefining it as a pivotal point in the history of the war. Through this, they also explore the long afterlife of trauma, the reconstruction of memory and how it intersects with justice, and the task of reconciliation in a nation where a legacy of ethnic suspicion continues to reverberate.”
Having read the book, I attest to the veracity of the above claim. The credibility of the publication is grounded in the impeccable academic credentials of the authors. Bird is Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. She has to her credit more than 80 articles and chapters on popular culture, media, heritage, and memory, as well as five books, two of which are award winning.
Ottaneli, her co-author, also of the University of South Florida, is Professor of History. He has authored and co-authored four books and several articles and essays on radical movements, ethnic history, and comparative migration in the twentieth century.
Yet, credibility often rides on more than the currency of academic triumph. On Africa, for instance, notable literary voices like Chinua Achebe and Ngügï wa Thiong’o have argued that the continent’s stories are better rendered by Africans and in their own tongues. But their standpoint does not invalidate the benefit of detachment often achieved by non-partisan non-Africans. This point profits from the consideration that, through half a century, Nigerians have failed to agree on what actually happened in Asaba on October 7, 1967.
The authors are mindful of the fact that they are liable to the charge of appropriating and running with a story not their own, a charge that, of course, pays scant attention to the reconstruction of today’s world as a Global Village in which what happens in Alaska is much the business of its denizens as it is the concern of the inhabitants of Sarawak. Thus, they take the pains to state that funding for their book did not come from Africa, while the story they have told is the result of extensive research, and the aggregation of the voices of massacre survivors, the relations of the victims and other assorted quarters. All told, 77 people were interviewed. The result is a 239-page book of six chapters:
1. The Road to War and Massacre.
2. What Happened at Asaba?
3. Causes and Consequences.
4. Surviving the Occupation.
5. Reclaiming Memory in an Age of New Media.
6. Trauma, Identity, Memorialization, and Justice.
What emerged, therefore, is a particularly sad story whose continued denial can only be by bigots. The book also strikes a blow for hope, for justice and for renewal. The sequences of the sorry events of October 7, 1967 and the nonchalance with which they have been responded to in some quarters induces consternation and depression, in that in 1967, officers and men of the Nigerian Army lined up thousands of unarmed civilians, their fellow citizens, and mowed them down by machine gun fire. It represented impunity and callousness. But, the atrocity is not novel in contemporary history.
A few examples are apposite.
The My Lai Massacre.
On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army soldiers of the C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd (America) Infantry Division massacred some 504 unarmed civilians in My Lai, South Vietnam. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. It was described as “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.”
The Rwandan Genocide.
This was the genocidal slaughter of ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority. About a million Rwandans were killed during the 100-day period from April 7 to mid-July 1994. The killing orgy cut the Tutsi population by 70 percent.
The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields.
These refer to sites in Cambodia where collectively between two and three million people were killed and buried by the Pol Pot Communist Khmer Rouge regime, between 1975 and 1979. The mass killings were a state-sponsored genocide (the Cambodian genocide) that targeted people suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals, intellectuals, ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian monks and Cambodian Christians.
The Holocaust was the Nazi programme of exterminating Jews under Adolf Hitler that cost the lives of six million Jews, and others during World War ll.
In all, one ominous string ties massacres everywhere in the world, irrespective of their scale. And that is the string of evil. But that, precisely, is where the similarity ends with the evil of massacres in Nigeria. Massacres in Nigeria are rarely acknowledged in official quarters and never punished in Nigeria. The reverse is the case in most other parts of the world. For instance, there were spirited efforts in top political and military circles to cover up My Lai. But soldiers, who objected to the massacre, a determined American press, and an outraged public refused.
Twenty-six soldiers eventually faced trial for criminal offences, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted for the killing of 22 villagers. Handed a life sentence, he ended up serving only three and a half years under house arrest. Minimal as the sanction was, and despite its exposition of American establishment’s reluctance to conclusively pursue the cause of justice, the trials served one big purpose. It demonstrated in America, in Vietnam and across the globe a universal acknowledgement of evil perpetrated by some of the loudest exponents of democratic credentials.
In 1997, 12 years after the toppling of the Khmer Rouge junta, the Cambodian government, with the UN’s assistance, set up a genocide Tribunal. Nine years later, the Tribunal started sentencing the convicted. Nuon Chea, second in command of the Khmer Rouge and its most senior surviving member, was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was given a life sentence in August 2014. In July 2010, Kang Kek Iew (aka Comrade Duch), director of the S-21 prison camp, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment, later extended to life. Many others were similarly sentenced.
Some of the most celebrated trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity have to do with the Holocaust. At the end of World War ll, international and domestic courts conducted trials of accused war criminals. This followed the 1942 declaration by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union that officially noted the mass murder of European Jews, and resolved to prosecute those culpable. The trials of leading German officials before the International Military Tribunal took place in Nuremberg, Germany.
Twelve of those convicted were sentenced to death, among them Reich Marshall Hermann Göring, Hans Frank, Alfred Rosenberg and Julius Streicher. Three of them got life, while four others received long stretches behind bars that ranged from 10 to 20 years. Hundreds of other war criminals were tried in what was called Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. About half of these were convicted. About the most famous of the trials of German war crime perpetrators was held in Jerusalem in 1961: the trial of Adolf Eichmann, chief architect in the deportation of European Jews. He was condemned, executed and his remains dumped in the sea.
The trial of Rwandan perpetrators of genocide was particularly daunting. The judicial system was in shambles after the genocide; of 750 judges, 506 did not remain after the genocide – many were murdered and most of the survivors fled Rwanda. By 1997, Rwanda only had fifty lawyers in its judicial system. Yet, over one million people were potentially culpable for their role in the genocide. The trials proceeded at a very slow pace. Of the 130,000 suspects in Rwandan prisons, only 3,343 cases were handled between 1996 and 2000. Of those defendants, 20 percent received death sentences, 32 percent got life behind bars, and 20 percent were acquitted.
Twenty-two individuals were publicly executed by firing squad in April, 1997. Meanwhile, the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, with jurisdiction over high-level members of the government and armed forces. Many of those that appeared before the Tribunal ended up in prison.
Despite these examples of the trials and conviction of perpetrators of genocide and war crimes, Nigeria remains uninterested in emulating this course of justice. That is why it boasts a personality like General I. B. Haruna. The authors say the following of the man on page 80 of their book:
(A) 2001 news account quoted Haruna’s testimony to the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission (HRVIC), the “Oputa Panel,” which was formed in 2000):
“As the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apology . . . I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria.”
This quote has been widely circulated online, and Haruna has often been named as the perpetrator of the massacre. However, Haruna was nowhere near Asaba at the time and could not have been involved. In 2016, Haruna wrote to us that his words were taken out of context and used to bolster the Igbo case for genocide. Furthermore, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he maintained his position that there never was a massacre: “The so-called Asaba massacre is a figment of propaganda!” Essentially, Haruna’s statements on Asaba are contradictory and self-serving, and are not useful in establishing what happened.
Yet, Haruna’s words are poignant. Because the man is not only an Army General but also a trained lawyer, his viewpoint properly situates wantonness in Nigeria. The point is not really his denial of Asaba. After all, they abound today who are adamantine in the insistence that the Holocaust is a figment of Jewish and pro-Zionist imagination. The problematic is, however, tied to the premeditated killing of “500” human beings indexed as unworthy of remorse and apology. People could ask what iron would do if gold rusted. They cannot fail to see the corollary between Haruna’s Nigerian template and Soviet ideologue Georgy Plekhanov’s observation that, “the dominant ideology in any society is that of the ruling class.” This, then, is the score: the all-powerful sit pretty at a pinnacle high above all laws, national and international. From this Olympian height, they could own up to serial atrocities and yet remain legally unscathed; they could brazenly deny even the self-evident and dare the nonplussed to self-destruct. It all explains why an argument with a uniformed and armed Nigerian could force from his mouth the ominous warning that, “If I kill you, you die for nothing.” That is also why cadres of the country’s Police Mobile Force are known as “Kill and Go” free.
This Kill and Go Free mentality was clearly at play in Asaba on October 7, 1967:
“Twenty of our men were selected and lined up in front of us and told as follows, ‘Today, I be your God. Me first, God second. God give you life, me I go takem. Two minute time you go die.’ … Two minutes afterwards these 20 men were shot. Another 20 were picked up and the same ritual followed.”
Apparently tiring of killing individuals with rifles, the soldiers then readied machine guns, both mounted on trucks and freestanding, and mass shooting began. Fifteen-year-old Ify Uraih had joined the parade with his father and three older brothers, Paul, Emmanuel (Emma), and Medua; he described what happened:
“Some people broke loose and tried to run away. My brother was holding me by the hand; he released me and pushed me further into the crowd . . . They shot my brother in the back, he fell down, and I saw blood coming out of his body. And then the rest of us … just fell down on top of each other. And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting … I lost count of time, I don’t know how long it took … After some time there was silence. I stood up … my body was covered in blood, but I knew that I was safe. My father was lying not far away; his eyes were open but he was dead.”
Exactly how many died in this single incident is unclear; around 700–800 seems likely, in addition to many who had died in the previous days. Sporadic shooting continued for hours until darkness caused the soldiers to disperse…
“My cousin said we should wait till it was dark so that we could go together, and I agreed. You could hear the sound of the injured crying. One man, who heard us talking, he was as old as my father. He had his hand almost severed from the rest of his body. And he told me that he had a knife, that I should please help him amputate the hand … I told him I could not do it. He died later. I knew his children.”
Ify Uraih and his cousin ran to their grandmother’s house, where they found his sisters and three younger brothers. He told them their father and three older brothers were dead; later he learned that Medua had survived, gravely wounded, and had been carried to the bush by his friend. Community elders Michael Ugoh and Leo Okogwu were among large numbers of the leading age grades to die. With all the men in hiding, it was left to women and children to attempt to retrieve the bodies of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and other relatives and then drag them back to their compounds for burial. Joseph Nwajei, the boy who had returned with family from Ibadan, had escaped into the bush from the family compound after watching the earlier execution of his uncle George, a prominent civil servant. When he returned a few days later, he learned of the death of his two brothers, aged 12 and 17, in the mass shooting:
“Mum told me that in the evening hours of the 7th, she had to go and look for their corpses at the mass place where they were shot . . . Mum, in the evening, was able to identify their corpses, took them in a wheelbarrow, pushed them to the family house, where they were buried. So, I never saw their corpses, I never saw their bodies.”
Most victims, however, were dumped in mass graves or thrown into the Niger. Few people had any opportunity to conduct requisite burial practices – an affront that is deeply resented to this day. When it was safe to move about, Frank Ijeh, a local Red Cross worker, enlisted surviving men to dig hurried, shallow graves wherever they found bodies around the town: “There are so many, I cannot remember. So many, so many, so many.” In spite of these efforts, many lay unburied for several days. Interviewed in 1977, a Mrs. Mordi reported that “for nearly two days . . . the soldiers wouldn’t let us come near . . . without opening fire. It was only when the stench of decaying corpses was all over the place that the soldiers relented . . . ” She retrieved her husband’s body, but not that of a Catholic lay brother, Ignatius Barmah, who had died beside him. She was able to put tinyele’a, a white cloth, over him – an important ceremonial act usually done by close relatives. Esther Nwanze recalled how wives went searching for their husbands, dragging them home if they could find them: “Some dragged two days before they reached home.” Pp47-49.
Fifty years after the mass sacrifice at the Altar of Moloch, Asaba remains. Resilient. Resourceful. Thriving. Hopeful. Peaceful. Thanks are due to the authors for recognising the laudable role of Asaba women who, when their menfolk were wiped out, moved in and held up the Asaba family. But the extremely sad memories of five decades linger. The people wait for closure. The authors mention and discuss “transitional justice.” That has its place, of course. But can it really happen in the absence of official acknowledgement of the evil done? Can it proceed without official apology?
While this is pondered, there are a number of assumptions and conclusions by the authors that lend themselves to interrogation. This may sound mundane but they describe the people of Asaba as Asabans. No. They are Ndi Asaba or Ndi Ahaba. More seriously, their narrative on the Aburi talks is astonishing.
“In early January 1967, at a two-day summit in Aburi, Ghana, between federal authorities and the country’s regional governors, Gowon and Ojukwu were unable to reach a compromise over whether Nigeria should become a loose confederation of semi-independent states or remain a federation. The failure of the Aburi summit accelerated the Eastern Region’s movement toward secession.” P10.
This account is unfortunate, to say the least. Gowon and Ojukwu did reach an agreement at Aburi. The records of meeting termed the Aburi Accord are public property, even available on the Internet. They show unequivocally that it was Gowon who reneged on the Accord, the last straw whose snapping inevitably led to the shooting war and the avoidable wastage of millions of precious lives. This embarrassing misrepresentation of a crucial piece of Nigerian history ought to be corrected in the next edition of the book.
The authors are spot on in concluding that the Asaba massacre and the shielding of the terrible development from public knowledge by Lagos and London helped to prolong the war for two main reasons. Had the story of the massacre hit the public domain, indignation in Britain and elsewhere could have forced Whitehall into reconsidering their unconditional supply of weaponry to the Federal side, thereby making Lagos more amenable to the idea of a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Again, the massacre compelled a lot of Ndi Asaba to join the war on the Biafran side, which used the macabre event to argue that laying down their arms would result in conclusive genocidal action against them. It was from this jump off point that the authors argued that Gowon had not prosecuted a war of genocide. Without playing on words, the Biafans had a good case in terming the war genocidal.
The anti-Igbo pogrom of 1966, a prelude to the war, had claimed an estimated 50,000 Igbo lives, according to the Massacre of Ndigbo in 1966: Report of the Justice G. C. M. Onyiuke Tribunal. That’s one. Two, the Gowon regime blockaded Biafra on the strength of a policy that proclaimed starvation a legitimate instrument of warfare. This cost kwashiorkor-induced deaths, mostly of children, by the tens of thousands. Three, throughout the war itself, the bombing and strafing of Biafran churches, hospitals, markets and refugee camps by Nigerian fighter-bombers were incessant, remorseless and systematic, leading to the deaths of thousands which never elicited official condemnation from a Britain solely interested in Nigeria’s oil. As a matter of fact, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s sanction of the punitive method of Gowon’s war underscored its genocidal configuration. Because of the importance of this point as a factor that framed the war, concise citation is imperative here:
“… Harold Wilson is totally unfazed as he informs Clyde Ferguson, the United States state department special coordinator for relief to Biafra, that he, Harold Wilson, ‘would accept a half million dead Biafrans if that was what it took’ Nigeria to destroy the Igbo resistance to the genocide …” (Roger Morris, Uncertain Greatness: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy, London & New York: Quartet Books, 1977, p. 122) – quoted from Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, “Igbo genocide, Britian and the United States”, re-thinkingafrica, 4 October 2015, http://re-thinkingafrica.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/herbert-ekwe-ekwe-conquerors-concord-in.html
Asaba remains to this day, it must be reiterated. But, to fully understand the Massacre of October 7, 1967, it must be seen as an integral part of the overall plan for and course of Nigeria’s prosecution of the civil war. Bizarrely, Radio Kaduna broadcast on a daily basis and throughout the war a Hausa song that gave a chilling message in translation:
Yes, let’s go, let’s march
Let’s go chase them from their homes
Kill them, plunder their homesteads
Ravage their wives
And abandon them in futile wailing.
The entire experience of the Asaba Masaccre and the Nigerian Civil War itself is so bleak that recourse to a specific pattern of Igbo prayer is apposite here. Ozoemena (May it NOT happen again); Ozoemezina (May it NEVER happen again.) It is a fervent prayer indexed on hope. But it is also a prayer against the grain of the Nigerian condition, a country in which red-hot pepper has invariably been administered as the cure for conjunctivitis. The problems that landed Nigeria in internecine war over five decades ago have since been compounded. The country is today much more disunited than it ever was. The telltale signs of wild political excesses proliferating the contingences of fresh cataclysms are all too obvious for the realistic to be apprehensive. Solid foundations are being laid for further anniversaries of massacres. On December 12, 2015, peacetime Nigeria witnessed the Army troops’ massacre of hundreds of Shiite Muslims Zaria. Since last year IPOB agitators for self-determination have become cannon fodder in the hands of the same military. And then there are the Fulani herdsmen invading communities and snuffing out the lives of unsuspecting hundreds.
It is at this point that the somber parable of the Porter’s Predicament must come in. He has quit moaning about the long decades it has been his unenviable lot to bear an oppressive burden; his worry now is tied to not knowing for how much longer he will be forced to groan under its dead weight.
*Asaba, Saturday October 7, 2017.